Great pub chefs - Love in a bun

By Alice Whitehead

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags New zealand Hamburger

Lizette Craig
Lizette Craig
New Zealander Karen Lawler is out to change the face of the British burger… by giving it a gourmet slant. Alice Whitehead reports. The oven is...

New Zealander Karen Lawler is out to change the face of the British burger… by giving it a gourmet slant. Alice Whitehead reports.

 The oven is often anathema to many New Zealanders. The best beach tucker is cooked the Maori way: dig a pit, fill it with branches, wrap-up your steak, sweet potato and pumpkin in calico (or a banana leaf if you have one handy), set fire to the wood and shovel earth over the coals to keep the heat and steam in. Then, simply soak up the sun until it is time to open up the pit and tuck in. The "hangi" method may be a million miles from British cuisine, but New Zealand born-and-bred chef Karen Lawler has brought a little piece of this island cooking to the Cambridge Bar, in Edinburgh.

 In just two years, 23-year-old Karen has carved herself quite a niche in the city, serving gourmet burgers to hungry Edinburghers. "New Zealanders are very much into their fresh meat and fish, cooked and prepared with no frills,"​ says Karen. "When I moved to Edinburgh I heard about this guy, Jon Clemence, starting up a new pub, and when we sat down together we both agreed that it was so difficult these days to find a decent burger, simply cooked. I was really attracted to the idea of creating delicious burgers at a gourmet level."

 Within months Jon had turned the former old men's pub, just off Princes Street, into a calm oasis, with white-washed walls, leather sofas, and coffee tables, while Karen devised an unusual menu centred solely on burgers and steaks - enough to make any New Zealander's mouth water. "I think I must be one of the luckiest chefs in the UK,"​ says Karen, who honed her burger-making skills at Planet Hollywood sites in New Zealand, Australia and London. "Being on board from conception meant I was able to ask for a kitchen to be built to my specifications. It was such a treat to be able to start from scratch, and today, the one thing that always strikes people is the size of the char grill!"

 The burgers at the Cambridge Bar are far removed from those peddled at fastfood outlets, and the nearest to "convenience" they get is the fact you can sup a beer while you eat. Choices range from the classic variety, to an "Italiano" with added mozzarella and pesto, a chicken burger made with camembert and cranberry sauce, or one served with a whole portabella mushroom, sundried tomatoes, mozzarella and chargrilled peppers. All the burgers are served in epic proportions and, if you really desire it, come with extra cheddar, roquefort, bacon and egg. "It's funny watching people eat them, because they're so big you have to use two hands,"​ says Karen. "Some people take a first bite and then have to resort to using a knife and fork."

 The menu is all about home-cooked flavour, á la Jamie Oliver, right down to the steak, egg and chips. "We pride ourselves on the 'solid' food cooked here. It's not gimmicky and there are no pretensions, it's very much 'what you see is what you get',"​ says Karen. For this reason, she uses only fresh produce. The poultry is free range, the bacon British, and the beef 100% Scottish. In fact, Scotland's bountiful produce makes the country feel a little like home for Karen. New Zealand, too, is famed for its meats, including beef and venison, and superb seafood, particularly sweet and juicy green-lipped mussels and salmon. She says: "The food in this country is fantastic. There's such a broad variety of ingredients available, and so close to hand,we are spoilt for choice. Because of this, I think Scottish customers expect more from their restaurants and many of the kitchens here are much more experimental.That really inspires me."

 The antipodean flavour also extends to the pub's atmosphere. "I feel like I am serving my friends a lot of the time,"​ says Karen. "It's so relaxed and informal. These days I think a lot of people like the fact they eat out but they don't have to book a table or get dressed up."​ And Karen's new take on burgers has proved so popular there are now plans to open up another pub, under the Gourmet Grillrooms name, in Edinburgh, serving - you've guessed it... more burgers! "I think the secret of our success has been our attention to detail.These aren't just any old burgers.We want top quality, right down to the bread the burger is served in," says Karen." There are no sweet, flat, hamburger rolls here. Our bread is brought fresh from the supplier. We've even dubbed it the Cambridge Roll."

 However, Karen is still modest about the fact she may be changing the face of the humble burger forever."I was once told if you give every dish a little bit of love the customer can't help but love it too, and that's what it's all about in the end."

 Chef's CV

 Name:​ Karen Lawler Age:​ 23 Career span:​ 6 years Experience: Trained at Planet Hollywood in New Zealand, then moved with the company to Australia and ultimately London. Following this she worked as a soux chef at St James Club, in Green Park, London, before moving to Edinburgh in January 2003. Ambition:"Continue to make the best burgers I can."Advice to others:"Take a chance, never say no to new challenges, you might surprise yourself."

 In the hot seat

 What's your favourite restaurant?​ The French Laundry, Napa Valley, California. What is your favourite food?​ Mussels, the green-lipped variety from New Zealand. What culinary tradition most inspires you?​ Italian. I love their simple approach to fresh produce. They don't overcook or drench food in sauces, they respect it. What would be your desert island dish?​ Steak on a stick, sitting on white sand watching the waves lapping on the shore. What piece of equipment would you not be without in the kitchen?​ My blender. We make an onion and garlic mix and blend this into the burger mix. It's a big industrial thing and without it I would be devastated! What do you believe is the most important course?​ The starter. If the customer doesn't enjoy that, it is unlikely they'll stick around for the main course. The starter has to be mind-blowing and the main course exceptional. What's the dish you'd like to be remembered for?​ A damn good burger! What has been the best dish on the menu in the last three months?​ Barbecue beef and bacon burger. Warm flavours, great in winter and good for hangovers. What do you most enjoy about you job:​ The camaraderie. We're a close-knit team, likea big family. What's your biggest gripe about the hospitality industry?​It's very difficult to take your mind off work and you often take it home with you. The job is a part of your life and influences everything you do. Also there never seems to be enough decent, well-trained people in the industry. Most are put off by the unsociable hours and difficult work. Is the customer always right?​Absolutely. We are here to provide a service and they should get exactly what they want. What do you eat and cook at home?​ I love Italian and Japanese food, so pasta and veggies mainly. I love my vegetables. When you've been working with meat all day it's nice to have a break from it.

 Licensed to grill​ Karen Lawler really loves this dish as: "It's just really, really tasty and fresh, which is unusual for a dish that contains chilli. "It is not heavy and cloying and you don't end up feeling really full and bloated at the end of it. "We source the produce we use from local companies all over Scotland, in particular we get the beef from estates in Aberdeen. We're spoilt for choice here, the quality of the meat is so good in this country. The bread is made by a baker in Edinburgh."Karen's top tip:"Make sure you cook the burger for just the right amount of time, about 7-8mins each side. It must be heated all the way through as there's nothing

Related topics Chefs

Property of the week


£ 60,000 - Leasehold

Busy location on coastal main road Extensively renovated detached public house Five trade areas (100)  Sizeable refurbished 4-5 bedroom accommodation Newly created beer garden (125) Established and popular business...

Follow us

Pub Trade Guides

View more